215: Cease Fire: A Look at Virtual Jihadi

Kate McKiernan

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Cease Fire: A Look at Virtual Jihadi

As games evolve as a storytelling medium, creative game makers are finding new ways of using the medium to challenge the limits of free speech. Kate McKiernan looks at the fiery debate surrounding this game as well as the motivations of the creator responsible for it.

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AceDiamond

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As much as I consider games to be an art-form that should be protected under free speech, and as much as I tried to see things Bilal's way, I simply cannot. He is claiming video games are being used to foster hatred, and yet he's made one that would do exactly the same thing, regardless of his intent. As much as I hate President Bush, I'm offended that someone would take video games and use it to put themselves in an alternate universe role as a suicide bomber targeting said president. It's almost like that game Jack Thompson wanted made, except he wasn't specifically asking for it to be about himself, if I recall.

At the same time I'm really not entirely sure he's completely wrong in what he was trying to do, but his message seems too easily malleable by others. And again, I'm finding it far too easy to draw comparisons to the game JFK Reloaded, which was built purportedly as a sim to figure out the magic bullet theory and yet was lambasted for being thoughtless (which it kind of is).

Perhaps ultimately, I don't fully understand his aims or motivations, other than provoking thought and yet crying foul when people took too much offense at what the subject matter was, as if that were an unrealistic reaction to making a game where you kill a president who hasn't even been out of office for a year.
 

jh322

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I think this is really interesting.

AceDiamond said:
He is claiming video games are being used to foster hatred, and yet he's made one that would do exactly the same thing, regardless of his intent.
As much as I can see where you're coming from with this, I think that Bilal actually doesn't believe he will take any American citizen further to partaking in any sort of hateful activity, verbal or otherwise. I think what he's trying to do is show them something that will make them question the sources of their information up to this point.

Case in point: I was playing Resident Evil 5 with my friend's younger (14) brother the other day (I know he's too young for it but he plays everthing anyway so I wasn't the one doing the damage). If you've played it you'll know the character I'm talking about, but shortly after the introduction we meet a head-scalf-wearing contact in Africa, who supplies us with our first weapons. Upon seeing this character, and aforementioned head-scalf, the boy says "Is that a terrorist?! Shoot him!" before the character has even spoken a word. The boy doesn't watch the news, he doesn't read the papers, his understanding of ethnicity (regardless of the fact that this character was from Africa, not Afghanistan or Iraq or whoever you want to talk about on this topic), is from videogames; specifically, Call of Duty 4. Now I find that is for me, if we ignore the age restrictions on games like everybody does (see the article about the 11 year-old girl who "saved" her family "thanks to GTA4"), a worrying case of videogames not necessarily inciting hatred, or violence, but definately shaping the views of a mind with little exposure to anything that contradicts a very simplistic viewpoint.

If this young boy played Bilal's game, he wouldn't turn around at every middle-aged man and decide to blow him up. But he would, I imagine, become a little confused, and try to resolve that with rational thought. This is a situation he has not yet had to find himself in. If he were to, then I think that he would find himself much more educated and empathetic to the plights of the people he thus-far doesn't understand. Yes, 14 is a bit young to understand all the issues involved, but if he's old enough to decide (even in a videogame) that any man wearing a head-scalf needs to be shot, then he's old enough to look at evidence to the contrary.

Bilal's game is very unlikely to incite any anti-American activity or thought, but what it will do is show us that anybody can make a game about destroying anybody, and that in itself is enough proof for us to, without taking away from the games we love, pay less attention to the messages we find in them. I think that's the paradoxical premise of Bilal's work. He's made a game with a message in order to stop people paying so much attention to the messages in games.

Or maybe I missed the point, if so, disregard the above rant.
 

Chipperz

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jh322 said:
I think you've hit the nail on the head. All the way through Call of Duty 4, my mates became increasingly fond of the phrase "fuckin' towel heads" and "stupid terrorists" and, to my shame, I thought nothing of it. This terrifies me more than I'd like to claim...

It's worth pointing out not only that all Bilal did was add a storyline to an Al Qaeda game, but also that said Al Qaeda game was made by switching the skins on the American and Iraqi soldiers in an American game.

So, to recap...

Made by a Western Developer, about stereotypical US marines killing stereotypical Iraqi "terrorists" = fine.
Made by a Western Developer, changed by Middle Eastern group, about stereotypical Iraqi "terrorists" killing stereotypical US marines = wrong.
Made by a Western Developer, changed by Middle Eastern group, rewritten by a Middle Eastern artist, about developed Iraqi "terrorists" killing stereotypical US marines = offensive.
 

jh322

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Chipperz said:
jh322 said:
So, to recap...

Made by a Western Developer, about stereotypical US marines killing stereotypical Iraqi "terrorists" = fine.
Made by a Western Developer, changed by Middle Eastern group, about stereotypical Iraqi "terrorists" killing stereotypical US marines = wrong.
Made by a Western Developer, changed by Middle Eastern group, rewritten by a Middle Eastern artist, about developed Iraqi "terrorists" killing stereotypical US marines = offensive.
Or I could have put it that simply...thanks for the summary :D
 

ReverseEngineered

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Apr 30, 2008
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This is such a great article -- the kind of reading that every legislator and pundit needs to read.

Sure, some games are just toys to play with, but consciously or not, the stereotypes present in all types of media (video games included) shape our view of the world.

Video games often revolve around combat because it's simple, competitive, and adrenaline-inducing. It also helps that every boy plays with pretend guns at some time in their childhood, so it's no surprise that they would continue to play gun-games as they mature. It's not that video games are inherently violent, just that we happen to like violent games.

When it comes to making a violent shoot 'em up, you need something to kill. As a society, we normally don't condone killing people, except as needed to protect ourselves, hence most shooters involve protecting the world from invading enemies. An example that everyone around the world can appreciate is the idea of fighting the Nazis in WW2. This scenario has been played out again and again in books, movies, and of course, video games. Nowadays, the US is less concerned with Nazis and more concerned with assorted terrorists, so it's no surprise that many games now focus on this generic enemy.

The problem is, this simplification leaves many things unsaid. Just as killing Germans in Wolfenstein 3D was left unqualified, so is killing "towel heads" in modern-day Iraqistan. There's no distinction made between civilians and guerillas, there's no concept behind the opposition's motives, there's just "us" and "them".

This is where the problem lies. By generalizing the concept down to "us" and "them", games encourage this type of thinking about foreign entities. Without developing the nuances of the other side, we're unable to distinguish the difference between "foreign" and "bad guy" -- under this generalization, they are one and the same.

We can easily say, "But it's just a game," and yet, it's not just a game -- this, combined with our similarly-biased mass-media, makes up the only window into this foreign entity that many of us ever see. If all we ever know of them is that they (some of them) kill Americans and blow stuff up, then it's only natural to extend that generalization to their entire nation. Of course, this stereotype isn't accurate of the entire country, only of a fringe group, and it's never for the simplistic reasons that we are told, but the fact is that we develop this view anyway.

By not showing both sides of the story, games like Call of Duty and America's Army encourage blind slaughter of entire nationalities by stereotyping them as "the enemy". Even if this simplification is merely part of making the game, the player takes in this mindset while playing it, and without some external rationalization that distinguishes between the game-specific stereotype and the real world, this mindset is what the player adopts in general.
 

littlerob

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I think this is one of the times when patriotism is actually shown in the forefront for what it is: a set of blinkers.

People cry day and night that everyone is equal, we're all just people, no one (and no nation) is better than another, just different. It's held up as the ultimate ideal. And yet, when a game comes around that shows people from a different nation or social group as the protagonists, and people from their own nation/group as the antagonists, then it's all-of-a-sudden offensive and wrong.

It's certainly not a very mature or fair way to go about things. American (or western in general) games can freely portray Iraquis and Afghanis as 'bad guys' and go about their merry ways shooting and killing them with reckless abandon. Why shouldn't there be a game from the opposite perspective? Are people so close-mided that they can't see the other side's point of view in a war? It's much the same vein as WW2 games - eleventy billion about Allied soldiers slaughtering their way through german and japanese soldiers, but if one comes around where the protagonist is german it's evil and wrong. How must the Germans and the Japanese feel about that?

I hate to sound like yet another America-basher, but it mainly is America here - I can't think of any other western nation that takes blind patriotism and elevates it to such a virtue, to the point of condemning anything that could be construed as even slightly 'anti-american'. To me (as a brit) a game from the perspective of a civillian-turned-suicide bomber sounds fascinating. It's not anti-american for the same reason it's not anti-anything - it's showing us the other side of the story, the one we don't get to see in western media for the most part. Bilal is simply showing us that the terrorists and suicide bombers we're conditioned to hate are still people.

This reminds me of that time Call of Juarez: Bound by Blood came under fire for using the confederate flag...
 

ReverseEngineered

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Kate, I'm glad you brought this story out into the open for people to see. I wasn't aware of Balil's plight before this article and it makes it clear how the cliched response to controversy in all forms of artistic media undermines any attempt at rational thought.

I think Balil's game makes a very good point -- as I said in my previous post, we're happy to blindly kill some generic enemy -- but the American focus on Middle Eastern cultures as the generic enemy leads to a stereotyping that is by no means healthy.

Since we're surrounded by these stereotypes in the media every day, we often don't realize how these stereotypes become part of our consciousness. Reality quickly sits in when you see it from the other side -- the thought of Iraqis killing Americans makes us painfully aware of how terrible the things are that we are simulating.

What really concerns me are those people who are up in arms about this art display. They are so blinded by their prejudices that they don't realize the hypocrisy of their concerns. Yes, we shouldn't be encouraging people to kill the President, but we shouldn't be encouraging them to kill Muslims either. For some reason America has accepted that people from the Middle East are hedonists and terrorists, that they are enemies who want to kill us, and that we must protect ourselves by killing them first. The people who are against the former but excuse the latter are guilty of as much racism and prejudice as anyone.

Through his game, Balil is trying to show us how our prejudices and stereotypes have created a double-standard for the acceptability of violence, and he does so using one of the worst purportrators -- war games. Those who think it's offensive or obscene imply that they disagree with his statements -- that they believe in those stereotypes and double-standards. We're in a sad situation when those in power are not only blinded by prejudice, but are willing to abuse their power to protect, maintain, and spread those prejudices.

God bless the USA. It needs it.
 

not a zaar

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This situation is a very interesting reflection on the attitude in America. On the one had we have Call of Duty 4, which is one of the most insanely popular games in recent memory. This game glorifies killing Arabs and Communists without a thought, and hardly anybody bats an eye at children playing it. On the other hand Virtual Jihadi is demonized. I don't agree with the message in Virtual Jihadi (in fact I detest it) but there is a huge double standard here.
 

Akaros

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I think the problem here lies in what the audience perceives, as opposed to what the game creator is actually trying to say. If every single player knew (say via an introduction cutscene) exactly what Bilal was trying to accomplish and why, there wouldn't be a problem. No one would think that he was trying to foster hatred or promote terrorism, but just to make a statement. Some players, though, will play and only see the killing Americans part. Some people will only know that the game is in the perspective of a terrorist and immediately start ranting about it.

Anyway, great article! I really hope to see more of your stuff on the Escapist!
 

samsonguy920

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The message in Virtual Jihadi is not meant to be liked or agreed with, but it is a strong 180 degree turn on our fight against terrorism. Those that play it and get the reason it was made will see the reality that lies behind it. We as a nation are safe here, cheering on the troops in their fight against terrorism, that we don't even feel the pain of the innocents who pay the price of 'collateral damage.' Now if there is ever a more unfeeling and insensitive term as that, I'm not sure I want to know it.
Balil could have easily switched the tables to a different scenario, where everyday Americans were the target, and not Bush. This would have fitted what drove him into making this better. I have to think that the outcry would have been even stronger though. (Which would have given me a laugh, with what a lot of gamers do in games such as GTA, Saints Row, you get the drift.) He knew at the time though that Bush was unpopular(Still is) and made for good fodder in this game. Unless there was a detail left out, no innocent bystanders are featured in the game, it is just soldiers and one twit of a president.
I am not saying this doesn't make me uncomfortable. It does very much so, but in more than one way. I myself wouldn't want to play as a suicide bomber (for one its a poor shortcut of a tactic.) And much as I don't like Bush...I don't like Bush enough to want him dead. But this is just a simulation, there is no reality in it. If you kill sim-Bush, he will res the next game to do it all over again. And as an American that supports my troops (wishing I was over there myself) I would not enjoy targeting them as well. Probably one reason I enjoy Half Life 2 moreso than Half Life. Besides the graphic quality difference.
Much as the game's concept may make me uncomfortable, I will stand in line to buy a copy, or do what little I can to make sure that it can still be sold or exhibited.
jh322 said:
Case in point: I was playing Resident Evil 5 with my friend's younger (14) brother the other day (I know he's too young for it but he plays everthing anyway so I wasn't the one doing the damage). If you've played it you'll know the character I'm talking about, but shortly after the introduction we meet a head-scalf-wearing contact in Africa, who supplies us with our first weapons. Upon seeing this character, and aforementioned head-scalf, the boy says "Is that a terrorist?! Shoot him!" before the character has even spoken a word. The boy doesn't watch the news, he doesn't read the papers, his understanding of ethnicity (regardless of the fact that this character was from Africa, not Afghanistan or Iraq or whoever you want to talk about on this topic), is from videogames; specifically, Call of Duty 4. Now I find that is for me, if we ignore the age restrictions on games like everybody does (see the article about the 11 year-old girl who "saved" her family "thanks to GTA4"), a worrying case of videogames not necessarily inciting hatred, or violence, but definately shaping the views of a mind with little exposure to anything that contradicts a very simplistic viewpoint.
This is an obvious opportunity to provide knowledge where there is none, preventing ignorance. True your friend's younger brother was too young, as the ESRB put it, but you weren't letting him play it alone, therefore giving an opportunity to illuminate him on what separates the game from reality, as well as the smaller details that can be easily misunderstood, such as the arms supplier. If more people took the time to share these things with the younger set in the games they play, then perhaps there would be less outright censorship of games.
Robert Mirch, the NY City Commissioner really had no right to outright censor the presentation. What he did have a right to do, was speak his opinion on it at anytime. I think Balil wouldn't have minded that at all, seeing it as something different from what he was trying to escape. Instead Mirch and others stuck the country's foot in its mouth, and basically defeated what we were really fighting for over in Iraq and Afghanistan. You should have really read your Job Description, and not wrote in 'Prevent others from doing things that I disagree with' in crayon at the bottom, Mr Mirch. Thank you for making all of us look like exactly as those who see us as.
 

JusticarPhaeton

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Agreed, fantastic article which sheds some light on an aspect of video games taht is rarely talked about. As Akaros says, part of the reason why people find it a problem is because they don't understand the artists' intent. It's much too easy to see a videogame and write it off as just that - a simple game. THe whole medium of the 'art game' is a relatively underground concept, once again due to the public's pre-formed definition of the videogame.

But art can be used to violently (not in a literal sense) provoke and smash down preconceptions, break people out of their comfort zones and make them think, and this is no exception. Bilal's game takes our previous notions of war shoot-em-ups and spins them around on our face. The result is something whose spirit is identical to the original, but which we now find extremely offensive. And that in turn should really bring us to question the message and influence of many of our own 'war' games.
 

Superlordbasil

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I agree with with Bilal on many levels in the end if its ok for game of stereotypes to kill stereotypes it shouldn't matter which side you play.

On i side i must admit i prefer being the non stranded group in the game. I find enjoyment playing as that German or that Vietcong not because i like there ideals etc. but because its allows a more interesting perspective on game play.
 

jh322

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samsonguy920 said:
*snip* This is an obvious opportunity to provide knowledge where there is none, preventing ignorance. True your friend's younger brother was too young, as the ESRB put it, but you weren't letting him play it alone, therefore giving an opportunity to illuminate him on what separates the game from reality, as well as the smaller details that can be easily misunderstood, such as the arms supplier.
For the record, that effort on my part was made in the most appropriate way I could manage.
 

hansari

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not a zaar said:
This situation is a very interesting reflection on the attitude in America. On the one had we have Call of Duty 4, which is one of the most insanely popular games in recent memory. This game glorifies killing Arabs and Communists without a thought...
I always felt CoD4 missed an opportunity to be something more. I remember when Zakhaev talked about how the "leaders had prostituted" their land and resources. But there was no elaboration...just continue the speculation that he is a radical madman...

Same with Al-Fulani... detonating a nuke in his own country? How unrealistic...

The bad guys weren't nazi's, but they were made to look absolutely bat-shit insane. No perspective, just evil. And once you've done that, killing them isn't a problem.

Thats why the transition from killing nazi's from previous CoD titles to Arabs/Russians was so effortless...Modern Warfare was a game, but it could have been more...

(still sold over 10 million units, so who over there cares :/)
 

samsonguy920

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jh322 said:
samsonguy920 said:
*snip* This is an obvious opportunity to provide knowledge where there is none, preventing ignorance. True your friend's younger brother was too young, as the ESRB put it, but you weren't letting him play it alone, therefore giving an opportunity to illuminate him on what separates the game from reality, as well as the smaller details that can be easily misunderstood, such as the arms supplier.
For the record, that effort on my part was made in the most appropriate way I could manage.
I, for one, found it quite appropriate. Too many kids these days play anything unsupervised and therefore allowed to make their own mind up about what they see. It is one thing to condemn a media for the effect it has on our kids, but another to be there while the kid plays, and help them discern facts from fiction, and fantasy from reality. I see no harm in games as long as the player knows it is fantasy, but without knowledge and guidance, it is too easy to see fantasy as reality and bring that into one's day to day life.
 

HentMas

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Apr 17, 2009
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I really hope Jako never knows about that game, he will probably say its a terrorist training device...

anywhay, the point in the game is well made, i understand why he was doing it, and it shows how much of a "free speach" people really get from the goverment

but still, i think he could have made his point without resorting to a video game, i feel that in the future perhaps, his work will be taken as an "example" of how "video games" can "influense" people.
 
Mar 17, 2009
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I was disgusted at COD4 blatant rhetoric, however I enjoyed the game and managed to keep things in perspective. Hey, it's a shooter, it's american-made, and there is a war going on, so no surprise there.

I think it would be interesting to do a paper on the use of video games as a form of propaganda. It seems to be the new toy of government agencies nowadays.

The First Golf War provided the backdrop to numerous murder simulators, the emphasis at the time, was 'simulation', as in fighter jets and helicopter simulators, 'surgical strikes'. WW2 shooters were still kings at the time, since not much happened on the ground there. Now that the focus is on ground troops and terrorists, we got shooters coming out of the woodwork (Soldier Of Fortune, Black Hawk Down, COD4, Tom Clancy, American Army, Arma, ect, ..) as a form of propaganda and recruitment tool.

It's interesting that I do feel more self-conscious nowadays when playing shooters (especially modern shooters), rather than what I used to do as a teenager, just killing 'nazis' or 'japs'. their crude and twisted portrayal just didn't register at the time.

So it is a good thing to 'stir shit up' in that department and forces people (especially young people) to reconsider the context of these video games. What I find sad is the hostile attitude of the authorities what are suppose to have an adult, mature mind, and just do the knee jerk dance and completely miss the point. 'oh, killing the president, terrorists! no no no!'. Pavlov had a point.

I'm still gonna get Modern Warfare 2, I know it will be full of cliches and sad one-liners. It will just probably make me even more cynical with the corporate game industry and their constant quest for appealing to the lowest common denominator. But it's the kid inside who wants his computer-guided adrenalin fix.
 
Mar 17, 2009
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samsonguy920 said:
I, for one, found it quite appropriate. Too many kids these days play anything unsupervised and therefore allowed to make their own mind up about what they see. It is one thing to condemn a media for the effect it has on our kids, but another to be there while the kid plays, and help them discern facts from fiction, and fantasy from reality. I see no harm in games as long as the player knows it is fantasy, but without knowledge and guidance, it is too easy to see fantasy as reality and bring that into one's day to day life.
I was quite shocked to know that my 10 years old cousin played Black already (probably with his friends, his parents have a 'no video games' policy).

I'd agree, however a 16 years old won't have a much more mature view than a 14 years old. But they are ripe for joining the Marines! With games depicting reality, you need to get some perspective sometimes.
 

Keldrif

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Great read!

This should be taught in schools so the game makers of the future will stop making stereotypical war games.